Cafe Olli Review: Goodfellas-Level Pizza, Destination Brunching and a Year of Struggle

Most of what I need in life can be found at Cafe Olli, where the cooks glue seasonality, courage and purpose into a lifelong mission statement. Almost hidden away on NE MLK, the vibe here is super chill, especially outdoors, which attracts an ad hoc community of committed eaters and dogs. Everything handmade is the motto of the house, breads, pastries, even tomato paste. Day or night, an enormous gleaming brick oven is in play, firming up too-easy eggs or adding arctic char to a fruit-crowned Dutch pancake, baked and served in a cast-iron skillet.

My regular rotation includes:

1) What I call the perfect breakfast cheeseburger (known on the menu as the “sausage sandwich”), with its thin and juicy pork shoulder patty, melted cheddar, good touches of mayonnaise, its spicy sauce and its grilled homemade milk bread.

2) A big, double-layered, gloriously frosted slice of devil’s cake.

3) The Pomodoro, a Goodfellas-level pizza, its thin, chewy sourdough crust covered in deep, black tomato essence and garlic shaved to the razor’s edge, then wood-fired to the stars. For a few extra bones, each slice gets a hand-formed haystack of the kitchen’s cold stracciatella cheese, made with curds and hand-pulled mozzarella cream, which you spread over the hot tomato sauce like divine butter. Hands down, this is the best new pizza of 2022 and a $21 deal.

It all adds up to one of Portland’s best new restaurants: a brunch and a pizza destination, supported by pastries to perfection, sparkling seasonal salads and simple sandwiches on large baguettes. But, behind the scenes, Cafe Olli is also a now all-too-familiar story of struggle and challenge.

When it opened last year, we announced Cafe Olli as a vision of the future—a worker-owned collective of five chef-baker friends, recommitting to a broken industry and working democratically as a team of equals. It was inspiring. But in a few weeks, only two members of the original group will remain. Chef Taylor Manning and his wife Siobhan Speirits, Olli’s pastry chef, become owners of the café.

What shook the group? Not a single thing, but surely rising food costs, labor demands, and the reality that five equal voices, working on multiple projects, can’t always find unity. Manning adds, “The workload is higher than we originally anticipated.” Summer nights were incredibly slow at times, especially for such a good place, with historic pizza. And last spring the decision to pay staff during an extended Covid shutdown opened up a financial wound.

The outgoing baker Daniel Green, an immense talent, sums it up in one word: burnout.

Green’s sourdough breads, the backbone of Olli’s delicious toasts and sandwiches, have been a tradition for months now, with their rustic wood-fired crusts and gorgeous tangy interiors. My friend Stephen, an inveterate foodie, regularly takes a whole baguette by himself, in a daydream, with good butter. Equally potent is the soccer ball-sized sesame-crusted country loaf, one of four loaves available daily.

Green, keeper of homemade pizza dough, also created Olli’s delicious morning croissants and rolls, but sadly few bought them. You missed, Portland. Beyond that, he worked the kitchen line and helped with Olli’s catering arm. No wonder he looked shocked a few weeks ago.

“It’s super sad,” says Green, whose last day is October 1. “It’s not an easy thing to do. Restaurants are really difficult right now. The pandemic, all the uncertainties. The toll is still there. Opening a cafe that’s open all day has been very intense. I have the ‘used to working really hard. But you can reach a point where you’re just overstretched.

The cafe removed all menus this summer, reducing weekday breakfasts and reducing dinner entrees. But already, Manning and Speirits are eyeing the fall, in all their corny passion. The much-vaunted breakfast burger – suddenly relegated to weekends only, sending regulars into mourning – is back in action, every day.

The baking team (to hell with labor issues, Olli still has several bakers) now includes former Coquine pastry chef Liz Clements. Former York baker Laughlin Cameron, whom Green calls “a good friend and hugely talented”, is the author of the wonderful pasteis de nata (Portuguese egg custard tarts), blackened on top in a 480 degree oven . Last Sunday, Speirits released a batch of corn cream bombolone donuts rolled in corn sugar. Even Italy does not understand this.

And soon, Manning says, pasta – her personal passion – will return to the evening menu, from which I recently picked a lovely expression of Portland: a salad bursting with signature peaches and nectarines from the Baird family orchard, hard-to-find ground cherries, and crispy fennel alongside a pizza full of blistered sweet corn, mashed poblano peppers and pickled red onions, all pop and snap.

Will any of these things be on the menu the next time you arrive? Who can say. But know this: plan B at Café Olli – just choose something else – is also a good plan.

Cafe Olli, 3925 NE MLK Jr Blvd, cafeolli.com, @cafeolli

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